Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Three Steps to Creating an Occupation for Your Characters

As writers, one of our tasks is finding the right career for your characters. Not only do your characters populate your story, they fill roles and hold jobs. Finding the right career can be a key piece to getting the character to fit.

Sometimes when I pick up a novel, it feels like the character’s job was almost an after thought.  The author spent time creating an image of the character…whether they had red hair or blue eyes…but waited until pushed to find an occupation. So how can you make this part of writing a bit more intuitive?

1)   Interview the character. If she hates coffee, she probably won’t be a happy barista. That might lend itself to some great humor, but might not fit your story. So ask your character what they would love to do. What would they hate? Does their dream job require advanced education they might not have yet? Does a hobby lend itself to a great job? Dig and see what they’ll say.

2)   Look for common denominators in your books. For example, a loose element of my brand is that one character is always affiliated with the law in some way. So Audra from Stars in the Night is an attorney in 1942 who gives up her dream (actually practicing law) to make sure her sister is okay. In A Wedding Transpires on Mackinac Island, Alanna is an attorney who just finished a major case and has to go home to help her family. And in my novella in Rainbow’s End, Colton is on his way to law school as a returning student. Each of these is a natural outgrowth of my career as an attorney and a way to prepare my readers in case I ever write legal suspense. Plus, I enjoy legal settings, so it fits.

3)   Read non-fiction and watch shows like NOVA with an eye to careers you find fascinating. Then ask some friends who are avid readers if they find them interesting. I have an idea for a World War II series that focuses on an elite group of soldiers with a very unique role. I find the topic enthralling, but that’s not enough. Then I have to see if readers and non-World War II enthusiasts are captivated. When everyone I mentioned this group to asked questions to know more, I knew I was on to a unique hook.

If you can tie your passion to your characters’ careers, you will have created interesting characters your readers will root for.

Cara C. Putman lives in Indiana with her husband and four children. She’s an attorney and a teacher at her church as well as lecturer at Purdue. She has loved reading and writing from a young age and now realizes it was all training for writing books. She loves bringing history and romance to life. Learn more about her books at Http://www.caraputman.com.


  1. I sometimes think that we pass over common jobs to give our characters careers deemed more interesting. There is a whole world of jobs out there and many (hidden)reasons why they are worked. That leaves great potential for character development. Your new WWII story idea sounds interesting. I know we'll see it out there soon.

    1. Mary,

      Interesting point. But I'd like to add something I picked up in Scott Nehring's book "You Are What You See." Often, we see characters start off as an office worker and then get into a more interesting world they have opportunity to save (e.g. The Matrix). Message seems to be that office work is meaningless, and needs to be left behind to have a real impact. Good message?

      Just my opinion.


  2. Good blog, Cara.

    Some careers are easier to write about than others. I used to be an inventory auditor and tried to find a way to have that career be a key role in a novel. And while I can picture someone working at a clinical laboratory being an interesting lead character, that wouldn't be the person doing what I do for a living.

    I'll also say that in some stories, someone may be in a story that has nothing to do with his career choice. For example, in my murder mystery series, one main character teaches political science at a university, after serving as an ambassador for years. His profession has nothing to do with the plot, except to help establish the fact that he's smarter than the average bear. (Doing crossword puzzles in ink while he was in High School also established that.) The story involves what he does when he's not working.